Today, my reviews of the second and third books in the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. My review of Ancillary Justice is here.
Ancillary Sword follows Breq as her and the fleet on the Mercy of Kalr deal with internal political intrigue on Athoek Station and its planet.
What surprised me the most about this sequel it’s how quietit is. There are very few space operas I can describe as on the quiet side, and they’re usually romances or lighter stories, which Ancillary Sword is definitely not. It’s a story about small scale politics and the meaning of justice in a system where so many people (…and AIs) have been wronged.
If you’re looking for space battles and fast-paced action scenes, you’re reading the wrong series. I can understand why one would presume that’s where the story is going after the ending of the first book – and in a way this book did feel like a deviation from what Ancillary Justice leads you to believe is the main conflict, but I didn’t mind it too much.
It’s almost refreshing to read something less… explosive than usual, something that deals with heavy topics without ever losing its sense of humor. And space battles may remain my favorite thing, but it’s also great to have finally found a quieter space opera I don’t hate.
What makes this series work for me is the humor. The more I read it, the more I think that using it as a comp title for Ninefox Gambit is… not accurate, since that series is the exact opposite of quiet, but they do have one thing in common: I spent half of the time laughing. It’s not like it’s always trying to make you laugh, but it works, because it’s exactly my sense of humor and it never feels forced.
And it surprises me how effortless the writing feels. This book isn’t tense, isn’t fast-paced, isn’t suspenseful, and yet I couldn’t put it down. You’d think a space story about people repairing a space station, drinking tea, being polite to each other while trying to ruin each other wouldn’t be that engaging, but it is.
I also really appreciated how this book challenges racism, xenophobia and in a way also transphobic assumptions in a way that feels just as effortless and true to the characters(Breq is still an AI that has been created to serve an evil colonial empire…)
There’s a subplot about human trafficking and slavery that could have turned in a (metaphorical) white savior narrative so easily, and it didn’t. I’m not sure it was handled perfectly, but there were so many ways it could have gone terribly wrong and it did not.
I also really, really love all these characters. Breq, who is not human and yet you almost forget that while reading, Seivarden, her fleet, the Mercy of Kalr itself – they’re all great and I love all the details we get about them (Kalr five and the dishes!). The new major character, Lieutenant Tisarwat, was hilarious. I can’t explain why without spoilers, but she’s a new favorite and I probably wouldn’t have loved this book so much without her.
My rating: ★★★★¾
Ancillary Mercy is the third book in the Imperial Radch series.
There’s very little I can say about this without spoilers that I haven’t already said in my two reviews of the previous books – I guess that’s what happens when you read a trilogy quickly enough that it all feels like one book – but I can say that this was, overall, very different from what I was expecting it to be. I think that’s mostly a good thing, but it’s also the reason Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy don’t seem to be as well-loved as Ancillary Justice.
Book one sets up a colonial space empire that – for the standards of evil colonial space empires – is relatively peaceful, but injustice and double standards are everywhere, and the Lord of the Radch is evil and… well, I won’t spoil how it can get worse.
The main character of this novel is a troop carrier, or, what’s left of the troop carrier Justice of Toren’s AI. I can understand why that would make a reader think the next books are about space wars, I thought that too, but instead, book two is about small-scale politics and xenophobia and book three is about small scale politics and AI rights. I can understand why someone could be disappointed by this, but Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy made enough interesting things with the worldbuilding and enough interesting things with the premise that they were never boring.
More than a story about taking down the evil space empire, this is a series about AIs and sentience, what we consider civilized, what we consider human or even sentient, who we consider worthy of rights. It also happens to be set in an evil space empire, but it isn’t a story about solving things with space wars and magical alien guns – we do have them there, but I loved how the ending wasn’t about them. Not that I don’t love space wars, they’re still one of my favorite things to read about, but this was refreshing.
Also, the way aliens are written in this story is really interesting and reminded me of the discussion about sentience in Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera, which I also loved. The Imperial Radch series isn’t comedy like Space Opera, but it plays with some similar themes.
The thing I love the most about this series? It’s fun.
I understand why many readers look for books that made other readers cry. We all want emotions. But honestly? I’m always more likely to remember as a good experience a book that made me happy than a book that made me sad, and there’s this misconception I hate that books that are fun also lack depth. There’s nothing more fake than this; also, many tearjerkes lack depth emotionally – characters that are nothing but miserable for 200+ pages are something I have absolutely no interest in reading.
The Imperial Radch series is a series that deals with injustice and overwhelmingly bad odds and it still manages to be fun. To not be hopeless.
It also helps that I love all the characters, and that I loved them more with every book. Seivarden’s character arc in this trilogy is one of the best things ever written.
Anyway this was great and now I want to get to Provenance too.
My rating: ★★★★¾
I read these two books for the “a book involving an AI” and “a book set in space” challenges of Marvel-A-Thon.